2004 Notebook

Linguistic Nonsense

A few weeks ago, I received a survey sent by the company Competitive Edge on behalf of my bank. It asked patrons to rate the bank's service by responding to the following questions:

  1. Did we immediately acknowledge you and extend a friendly greeting?
  2. Did we take ownership for the service we provide and effectively follow through?
  3. Did we actively listen to you in order to understand your needs?
  4. Did we proactively pursue and find resolution for you?
  5. Did we use appropriate opportunities to give you additional information to enhance your financial life?
  6. Did we exercise unconditional positive regard and empathy?
  7. Did we express our appreciation to you?

This survey is an example of the linguistic nonsense which escaped from the self-help movement into the language of business and academia. To everyone's detriment, this babble has displaced plain speaking. The subject is making a deposit at a bank, not psychotherapy!

(In particular, the phrase "exercise unconditional positive regard and empathy" gives me a creepy feeling. My ego is healthy enough that I have no need for a bank teller to be either a personal cheerleader, best friend, or therapist.)

Here's a rewrite of the survey, guided by Strunk and White and the question "Would someone from the 1950s understand this?":

  1. Did we greet you?
  2. Did we provide what you wanted?
  3. Were we attentive and respectful?
  4. Did we offer useful additional information, without pushing services you don't need?
  5. Did we thank you for your business?

It's not a coincidence that the questions are both shorter and intelligible. (I combined two questions, and omitted the second question entirely because it makes no sense.)

For the record, I did of course inform the bank that the survey was embarrassingly unprofessional. A few days later, I learned that a neighbor who also banks there had done the same. It's a relief to know that I'm not the only person who finds such language ridiculous. Perhaps if enough people jeer at this kind of foolishness now, tellers will not in future ask us whether we feel "closure" when our transactions are complete.



My bank says they didn't write the survey, which means it's Competitive Edge that needs a remedial class in English. (In case the association isn't strong enough, I reiterate: Competitive Edge's work is jargon-laden, unintelligible, and unprofessional.)


The New Truth

I've decided to call a spade a spade. The correspondence between marriage between gays and interracial marriage is so strong that from now on, I'm calling people against marital equality racists. (Technically they're not, I know, but in this case a lie tells the truth better than literal truth.)

Now can we all please get back to realizing that due to the current administration's ruinous fiscal mismanagement, soon no-one will be able to afford marriage?


Cut by the Sword of Morality

Listening to three hours of public commentary on legalization of same-sex marriage has left me with two observations:

  1. Those against cited religious and moral reasons exclusively. Those for cited religious, ethical, economic, civic, and legal reasons.

  2. Arguing that same-sex couples shouldn't be allowed to marry because they are a priori unfit parents is ultimately self-defeating. (For argument's sake we'll ignore the fact that some people marry legally for purposes other than raising children.) Restricting rights based on identity or behavior, aside from being reprehensible, is a double-edged sword. Would those against same-sex marriage also deny the right to marry to alcoholics if statistics proved them worse parents than same-sex couples? How about couples of differing religion? Felons who've served their time? Interracial couples? Cancer survivors? The divorced? The poor? Religious fundamentalists? Those over forty? Or, just possibly, opposite-sex couples?


Opening Out

While chatting with a friend the other day, I mentioned in passing a trilogy by an author we were discussing. My friend stopped the conversation there. He'd read the first book, but never heard of the final two. In that single moment, what had been an isolated work became part of something larger. The change, the reassessment of reality, took him aback.

I've had that "opening out" experience myself a few times: the feeling that strikes when an unconscious assumption about the world is broken, revealing a richer picture than you'd imagined. Let me give a few examples:

  • In college, a friend gave me a mix tape with the three "Anthem" tracks from Philip Glass's Powaqqatsi soundtrack. I learned the nuances of the Glass pieces, which were indeed anthemic: slow but unstoppable, building piece by piece to a climax. A few years later, I bought the Powaqqatsi soundtrack and listened to it. The first track was atypical; it was upbeat and frenetic, calling one to dance. This ended suddenly, but a single synthesized note persisted. It began slowly rising in pitch, its timbre broadening. Then a pulsing, slow beat was laid on top of it: the opening notes of "Anthem 1". Until that moment, I hadn't known there was a majestic prelude to the music I'd enjoyed for years.

  • Another Philip Glass experience: I bought the original soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi not long after it was released (on vinyl). For years, that was the definitive version of the music for me. Eventually I saw the film and learned there was more to the soundtrack than I knew. In 1998 Glass and his ensemble re-recorded the soundtrack, including more cues from the original score. So now I have two versions: the traditional soundtrack, which I'm most familiar with, and another which embeds all of the original in a new, more complex matrix. It's as if someone had taken the original and written new connecting pieces for it.

  • Imagine reading and loving Tolkien's The Hobbit as a child, but not knowing that The Lord of the Rings existed. How would that moment of discovery feel, when you realize that the story you've cherished is almost a footnote to a grander epic? Or what if you'd only heard the single version of The Doors' "Light My Fire", never knowing the exquisite solos and rich structure of the album version existed?

I'm fascinated by this experiencing this feeling in literature. Some of my favorite novels are those wherein at the end of the novel the beginning seems to have taken place in a different world, a lifetime or more away. (For the record, science fiction has no special claim on this quality; it depends more on the story than the setting.) This quality is a rare thing, and I can count the occurrences of it I've run across on one hand. The reason it's rare is that it's hard to do: you have to take the audience in a direction they haven't imagined. In a media-saturated world, where most everyone sees, hears, or reads hundreds of stories a year, finding something new is difficult. But it continues to be done.

Surprise is an important factor in generating this feeling, but it isn't sufficient. For example, this afternoon I learned that there are half a dozen of Lewis Trondheim's Lapinot stories that I never knew existed. While this was a surprise, it didn't induce the "opening out" feeling. Why? Probably because I'd known that there were more Lapinot tales, although I didn't know there were so many. No unconscious assumption had been broken.

As I write this, I have a chance to experience this feeling again. A few years ago, a friend sent me a boiled-down 1-CD version of Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs (although the name 33 Love Songs doesn't have quite the same ring). Now that I'm note-for-note familiar with the shorter version, I've gotten the original. When I cue it up, will I once again experience the sensation of expanding horizons? Will I get the same, deeply satisfying feeling that the universe is unfolding in front of me, revealing previously unimagined mystery?

p.s. A while back, I had in interesting notion for a minor character to put in a story: a talented classical composer whose sole work is to create a new movement for each of the major symphonies in the canon, indistinguishable in style from the symphony's original composer, and inserted between existing movements. Could you imagine hearing a wholly unexpected new movement in Beethoven's Seventh? If there were a thousand of me, one would be working on this.


Neologism: ospid

I do remember one thing:
it took hours and hours
and by the time I was done with it
I was so involved, I didn't know what to think.

This morning I hit upon a method of making images that combines two- and three-dimensional graphics. I'll need the technique in the near future for an upcoming page. I'm so pleased with how the sample image turned out that I've been looking at it every few minutes.

I carried it around with me for days and days,
playing little games
like... not looking at it for a whole day
and then... looking at it
to see if I still liked it.
I did!

This isn't the first time I've experienced an intense fascination with something I've made. (The last one I recall was last year's floated sidebar hack.) The feeling usually lasts for a day, or maybe two.

These objects need a name, so I do hereby christen them:

n, an object which, for a brief period after its creation, intensely fascinates its creator.

The more I look at it, the more I like it.
I do think it's good.
The fact is, no matter how I study it --
no matter how I take it apart,
no matter how I break it down --
it remains consistent.
I wish you were here to see it!

Lyrics from "Indiscipline", ©1981 King Crimson

Once the fascination is over, the object is no longer an ospid.


Irons' First Law of Examples

If a particular example seems obvious but you can't find it in the literature, it's more complex than you expect.


Last updated 4 October 2004
All contents ©2004 Mark L. Irons except "Indiscipline" lyrics ©1981 King Crimson

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